Africa: The Next Frontier for IBM Research Innovation

by Solomon Assefa, Research Scientist, IBM Research

The continent of Africa is emerging as one of the last great global growth markets and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a growth rate expected to average 7 percent annually over the next 20 years. Forecast this out and Africa will become a leading source of innovation and opportunity. As African countries prepare to advance their economic capabilities, IBM is committed to the region’s future with the opening of a new lab in Nairobi, Kenya.

IBM Research – Africa will be IBM’s 12th global laboratory and the first science and technology research lab on the continent conducting both applied and far-reaching exploratory research.

IBM has long had a foothold in Africa and its presence today spans 20 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. IBM has also deployed several Corporate Service Corps groups, an employee volunteer program modeled after the U.S. Peace Corps, across Africa to make contributions to the communities in which it does business.

IBM’s new lab is a further nod and commitment to this important growth market. IBM has long recognized the possibilities that could be reached by research and collaboration, and IBM’s expanded presence in Kenya will encourage and strengthen innovation, engaging local entrepreneurs, universities, governments and innovators to develop solutions to the challenges faced by the people of Kenya and beyond.

Expanding in Africa requires a long-term outlook.  Before IBM can do business throughout the region, it must aid in strengthening the capacities of Africa’s people and institutions— including knowledge, technology infrastructure, business sophistication and governance.

There is enormous growth potential across the continent, but that potential won’t

be realized unless the underlying physical, economic and societal infrastructures that permit markets to develop and endure are in place. Success will only come through a patient, long-term approach. An example of this is IBM’s plans to lay a foundation for skills and innovation growth in Africa by establishing a resident scientist program aimed at attracting top Kenyan and other African talent to work side-by-side with IBM researchers. These applicants will be top-tier scientists and researcher from pre- and post-doctoral backgrounds as well as from academia, government or industry.

As for research focus areas, one particular issue across Africa is the challenge of multiple government organizations to communicate with one another and share information. To that end, IBM Research – Africa will work on Next-Generation Public Sector solutions so that information is automatically collected and analyzed from various sources to improve planning, scheduling and tactical decision making within and between agencies. Armed with the right information technology, government agencies can reduce the cost of social services, improve efficiency and productivity, deter fraud and abuse, improve citizen access to services and enable digital interaction between citizens and the public sector.

Smarter Cities is another area of focus. As the world’s second most populous continent with more than 955 million people, Africa’s urbanization rates are the highest in the world and more than half of all Africans will live in cities by 2030. IBM scientists will work on improving access to and quality of city services, initially focusing on smarter water systems and transportation solutions for the region.  For example, the use of predictive analytics has the potential to solve traffic congestion in Nairobi by using real-time insights to model and anticipate traffic jams. IBM’s recent global Computer Pain Survey of 15 cities ranked Nairobi as the fourth most congested in the world.

The goals of IBM Research – Africa underpin IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative where advances in sensors, networking, telecommunications and analytical software are enabling organizations to manage more complex systems.  In fact, Africa may have a big advantage. Due to the current nature of the physical, governmental and economic infrastructures, Smarter Planet solutions have the potential to produce even greater impacts than they have in more developed countries. Indeed, Africa has the potential to leapfrog some of the world’s more advanced economies. African countries have the opportunity to include instrumentation and information-gathering capabilities from the start as they build out new systems and services.

IBM stands ready to collaborate with African governments, universities and businesses to work jointly on research that will uncover new breakthroughs in science and technology and that build the platform for Africa’s future.

Join the conversation on Twitter:  #IBMAfrica

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